Out of respect for those suffering in the aftermath of the Beirut explosion the shipping industry must reflect on this tragedy, and then come together to make certain that it can never reoccur.
Commenting on the Beirut explosion caused by a cargo of ammonium nitrate, security firm Dryad Global pointed out that, “While the disaster itself was exceptional, the events leading up to it were not.”
It is a fact that hazardous material is shipped across the world’s oceans daily. It is often mishandled or illegally traded. Abandoned containers of hazardous goods are found regularly in ports.
Dryad Global said that the maritime regulator, “The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has recorded 97 cases of abandoned ships and crews since 2017. Ships are abandoned by their owners if a vessel is no longer lucrative to maintain, or perhaps if the ship has been stopped by authorities and fined. While the situation of the seafarers aboard these ships is often tragic, as they may receive little pay or even food for months, what happens to the load on the vessels is often unclear.”
The citizens of Beirut discovered what had happened to the cargo on the Rhosus, too late. It is, however, very likely that other cargoes in other ports are sitting on the tarmac in a terminal forgotten and festering, bristling with danger for local inhabitants and environments.
In the immediate aftermath of the Beirut explosion the focus is, rightly, on the immediate victims of the blast. But the economic and social aftershocks will continue, and they will affect those that remain.
Angry Lebanese citizens want answers on who is responsible for the explosion that has seen 137 people confirmed dead and a further 5,000 injured, at the current count, while thousands of homes and businesses have also been destroyed, not to mention the severe environmental damage caused by such an event.
Lebanese citizens have pointed a finger at what they believe is a corrupt government, and they could well be right to do so. However, there are also questions to be asked of those within the broader maritime sector.
International Maritime Organization (IMO) secretary-general Kitack Lim rightly expressed his “deepest condolences and sincerest sympathies to the families of the victims and to the Government and people of Lebanon,” after the disaster.
Lim went on to say, “The port provides a vital artery bringing food, medicines and supplies to the country and its destruction will have devastating consequences. The United Nations is assisting the immediate response to the incident. The International Maritime Organization stands ready to assist in any way we can."
These are certainly sincere sentiments from the secretary-general and there is no suggestion that he should be held personally responsible. But as the litany of failures emerge, the industry itself must reflect on what it can do better.
It is not a case of preventing this type of disaster reoccurring, Beirut was already the second massive loss of life from poorly handled hazardous cargoes, with the loss of 173 people in China’s Tianjin Port in 2015.
Nevertheless, it appears that a Russian owner was allowed to walk away from an unsafe ship, leaving what is effectively a ticking time bomb at the port of a country that was unable, or as some would say, unwilling to deal with the cargo, 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate.
Global media investigations have quickly uncovered the suspected owner, a Russian known as Igor Grechushkin, according to former crew members, who he left abandoned in the Lebanon six years ago.
Grechushkin is reported to have managed Teto Shipping, which owned the Rhosus: the ship that carried the deadly cargo to the port of Beirut.
A sadly not rare enough complaint from crews in general, the seafarers on Rhosus said they were “abandoned” without pay for nearly a year in 2014.
According to reports, the ammonium nitrate was confiscated and held at the port in a warehouse.
This should be a rare occurrence, but a UN report suggests otherwise. “Containers often lie abandoned within ports, sometimes even by design, fuelled by criminal activities such as waste smuggling and corruption. Despite some efforts to counter this, the issue remains widespread and there are continued obstacles to tackling it.”
According to Dryad Global, “The IMO number only reflects the cases of ships – we know little about how many containers stand abandoned in ports around the world.”
Peregrine Storrs-Fox, TT Club’s risk management director and a campaigner for safer shipping, believes there is a need for far reaching education within the industry that will educate those handling dangerous goods to employ safe working practices.
Last month, Container News, wrote in what was a paragraph of horrendous prescience, “It is worth looking at the failures at the Tianjin Dongjiang Port Ruihai International Logistics container terminal and warehouse for hazardous materials, if only to remind the industry of what can happen if cargoes are not properly handled.”
Container News is not claiming any great insight, many within the industry were already very aware of the potential dangers, Container News merely gave voice to those concerns. Storrs-Fox also said in that same story that the hand-off between local port regulations and international shipping regulations are often difficult.
Shockingly, last year Sri Lankan authorities found more than 100 abandoned containers in the country’s main port in the Capital Colombo.
Dryad Global said those boxes “Contained clinical waste, potentially including human remains, and were leaking fluids. The risk that the containers had contaminated the ground and surface water in the two years they had lay in port unnoticed fuelled public health concerns. Sri Lanka has been able to investigate this problem – but it is likely that, in many cases, abandonment goes undiscovered.”
Clearly in a global industry global regulations are imperative and that will require a system for global enforcement. There are major difficulties in developing such a system, but it is clear that after the death of more than 300 people in two accidents, the injury of many thousands of others and the decimation of peoples’ lives and livelihoods the old system is broken. We must fix it.